San Francisco’s regional rapid transit agency, BART, just voted not to build a long-planned extension to the eastern suburb of Livermore.
To create the consensus to start the BART system, over 50 years ago, unfunded promises were made of future extensions into outer suburbs. The need to fulfill these promises is one of the top arguments for these extensions.
But are these promises wise, or for that matter, should they be believed?
When you promise some Town X a transit line, that’s logically equivalent to saying: “You in Town X don’t have to do anything to make this line happen, or succeed.” In other words, it doesn’t matter whether Town X …
- … allows the transit line to go a place where there will be destinations in walking distance, and where it’s safe and easy to walk.
- … plans major intensification around the transit line, so that there will be lots of demand there.
- … allows the line to be built in a way that’s reasonably cost-effective for the transit agency.
This problem arises with all kinds of transit, from rapid transit lines to local bus services. Leaders from Town X talk about transit as though it’s their entitlement as taxpayers, rather than something that they have to help succeed. Logically, this leads to creating more transit lines where the necessary conditions for success are absent. That leads, in turn, to accusations that the transit system is failing, when in fact it’s running intentionally low ridership services for non-ridership reasons.
A similar problem arises when the transit agency allows itself to be the sole advocate for a transit expansion to Town X. This gives Town X the same message: The transit agency will do all the work; we don’t really have to help. That’s why I am always advising that advocacy for expansion should not come from the transit agency.
So be careful what you promise, and be careful how seriously you take unfunded promises, especially ones made long ago. In ridership terms, transit succeeds only in partnership with local government. For that partnership to work, it must be clear that if the local government doesn’t do what’s really needed, the transit may not happen.